Language as a complex algebra: Post-structuralism and inflectional morphology in Saussure’s Cours


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In Item-and-Arrangement models of inflection, morphemes are associations of form and meaning stored in a mental lexicon. Saussure's notion of the linguistic sign as a unit of an acoustic image (signifier) and a concept (signified) immediately suggests such a model. But close examination of the examples of inflectional morphology throughout the Cours brings Saussure's ideas more in line with Process morphology, a model in which recurrent elements in word forms are exponents of content features, and realizational rules license a word form inferentially from the word's content. The Saussurean sign allowed French structuralists to revolutionize the methods of modern social science, eschewing the motives and intentions of human actors to focus on the system of oppositions that make signification possible in each domain. Eventually, post-structuralism rejected the static nature of the linguistic sign, forcing linguistics into relative isolation (since it held on to sign-based models of language). The criticism of structuralist treatments of morphology in Process models of inflection, however, stands as an exception to this tendency. In retrospect, I argue, similar ideas can be found in Saussure's view of the langue as a complex algebra.
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